GLBTQ Teen Coming Out Stories: Move Beyond Them, or Keep ‘Em Coming?
An Imaginary Yang and Yin Dialog by One Writer of Two Minds
by Lee Wind
Yang: We need to move beyond coming out stories.
Yin: We still need them.
Yang: Look, the gay teen “problem” novel might have been important when being GLBTQ was still a problem, but we’ve covered that with the books already out there.
Yin: You want the world to be beyond prejudice, and it isn’t. Being queer is still a punishable offense in many countries of our world in 2010, and even in the most accepting nations, full equality has not been achieved. In the USA, the struggles for equal marriage rights, eliminating Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act show how deeply entrenched homophobia is in our culture. Against this backdrop, especially for teenagers, coming out as queer can still be—and often is— momentous.
Saying we’re done with coming out stories because we already have a few of them is like saying we’re done with first love stories. Really? Has it really all been said? How could the two hundred or so queer YA novels that have been published since 1969’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth The Trip. cover it all? Especially when there are literally thousands—tens of thousands—of books about straight first love published every year? (In 2009 there were just over 288,000 books published by traditional publishers. Thirty-seven of them were listed by the American Library Association’s Rainbow Project as having significant GLBTQ content for kids and teens.)
Yang: But I’m tired of reading the “coming out” novel. Let’s move on to new stories. GLBTQ characters doing other things that are novel-worthy, stories where their being queer is a footnote, one element among many. I feel this way about all minority groups. Isn’t it good that we’ve gotten to the point where a book can “star” a black character without the subject of the book being the character’s skin color? What’s the difference? We need a post-gay perspective. Enough with the labels—they just limit people, and books. Give us more YA stories where the character isn’t struggling with their sexuality, they’re just living their sexuality as part of the bigger canvas of what’s going on. That’s what I want to read.
Yin: When you’re comparing GLBTQ kids with children in other minority groups, you have to consider that kids of color are born into families of the same color, and usually religious minorities are born into families of the same religion—while most teens who come to realize they are gay, or lesbian, or bisexual, or transgender, or questioning, are raised by parents who are straight. Think about it. If you’re black, you never had to come out to your parents about being black. In a hetero-normative culture where the expectation is for you to grow up to be straight, every GLBTQ person hits a “coming out” moment of realizing their difference—and then they have to decide whether or not to be honest about that difference with themselves and others. That “coming out” journey has its landmarks—and is universal in our queer community. As universal as first love. Today’s generation of teens are coming out NOW—in high schools, middle schools, even elementary schools. And because nearly every GLBTQ kid facing coming out is being brought up by “foreigners,” in a “foreign” culture, books become even more important— for these kids are desperate to see a reflection of themselves in the stories they read.
Yang: Okay. I’ll concede that coming out is eternal, and those stories are still important. But do you think they could maybe come out AND do something else, too?
Yin: We’re seeing that in a lot of the new queer genre books. In Perry Moore’s Hero, Thom is a teen who has to come out about being both gay and a superhero.
But I hear you. There are times when I want to read a good story with a queer main character where the issue isn’t their sexuality. Like Ash by Malinda Lo, a Lesbian re-telling of Cinderella. I loved that the problem of the book wasn’t that Ash fell for another woman!
Another thing that’s happening is we’re getting a lot more books with secondary gay characters.
Yang: Ugh! The Gay-Best-Friend syndrome! It’s such an eye-roller.
Yin: Hold on—there are some powerful ensemble books that include a queer character who’s in there with the rest of them. Quad by C.G. Watson had six kids trapped in the high school while there was a shooter out there—and the shooter was one of their friends. Two gay characters were in there among the trapped kids and the suspects—right alongside the jocks, the cheerleaders, the preppies, the techies, and the freaks.
We should be applauding the inclusion of GLBTQ characters in supporting roles. Ellen Wittlinger, the author of the groundbreaking Parrotfish (one of the handful of transgender stories for teens), famously said that she includes GLBTQ characters even in her stories that aren’t specifically about that. Why? Because GLBTQ teens are part of her readers’ world, and she wants to reflect that world to them in the stories she writes.
Yang: Well, supporting roles may be okay, but wouldn’t it be nice to have GLBTQ characters be the STAR?
Yin: There are some amazing new books, like Will Grayson, Will Grayson co-authored by the hysterical John Green and David Levithan, which stars two teen Will Graysons— one is gay, one isn’t. And the one that isn’t has a gay best friend (Tiny, a football star set on creating an autobiographical musical). So that book has it both ways!
Yang: Gosh, musicals. Sigh. Does every gay character have to be such a cliche? That’s what’s driving me so nuts about watching Glee!
Yin: There’s a wonderful TED talk by the African author Chimamanda Adichie where she talks about the danger of the single story. Her point is that stereotypes are dangerous not because they’re untrue, but because they are the only story we know of someone. If the only gay teen characters in novels are swishy effeminate guys, then that’s dangerous, because that’s the only story being heard. But if we have a variety of gay guys, then the gay figure skater, Alex, in K.P. Kincaid’s The Next Competitor isn’t so threatening, and can be taken as his own three dimensional character rather than a representation of gay teen boys everywhere.
If not on TV, at least in teen fiction we are starting to get some real variety: Goth gay guys like the main character in Steve Berman’s Vintage: A Ghost Story, Superhero gay guys like sixteen-year-old Eric in Hayden Thorne’s Masks trilogy, Star quarterback Bobby in Bill Konigsberg’s Out of the Pocket—hey, that’s two gay superheroes and two gay football players! Maybe we’re building up some new, empowered stereotypes here!
There are entire groups of kids who really need more stories. Lauren Bjorkman’s My Invented Life is “a modern day quasi-Shakespearean comedy romp for questioning/bi girls,” but it’s on a very thinly populated bookshelf of bisexual teen titles. Latina Lesbians have Mayra Lazara Dole’s Down to the Bone, but not much else. Sometimes you end up with one title, like Nina Revoyr’s The Necessary Hunger, which combines an interracial love story (an Asian American and an African American Lesbian teen romance) against the backdrop of high school basketball and the competition to be recruited for colleges.
The bottom line is that there is power in a multiplicity of stories, and that’s what we need. More good stories. For Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Queer (Gender Non-Conforming) and Allied teens.
Because books can change those teens’ lives. And those teens can—and will—change our world!
Yang: I’ve had to read so many straight romances and figure out ways to take those characters into my heart. Maybe it would help if, like Brokeback Mountain, our GLBTQ stories could cross over and be read by ALL teens, too.
I wanna go read a good book. How about you?
Yin: I AM you. But count me in.
Cited in this article:
Number of books published in 2009 (http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/456396-Self_Published_Titles_Topped_764_000_in_2009_as_Traditional_Output_Dipped.php)
The American Library Association’s Rainbow Project list of books published in 2009 for kids and teens that had GLBTQ content (http://rainbowlist.wordpress.com/rl-2010/)
The gay actor, Chris Colfer, who plays Glee’s regular gay character Kurt, is interviewed http://www.vanityfair.com/online/oscars/2010/04/chris-colfer-wants-to-show-you-his-ass.html
“Brokeback Mountain” movie a crossover hit http://archive.glaad.org/eye/brokeback_mountain.php
Links to organizations fighting for GLBTQ equality:
The Human Rights Campaign http://www.hrc.org/
Servicemembers Legal Defense Network http://www.sldn.org/
GLSEN, the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network http://www.glsen.org